Malaysia: Home Ministry ban signals crackdown on civil society, say Comango reps

KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 8 — Putrajaya is edging closer to “extremist views”, social activists said today on the heels of the Home Ministry’s sudden decision to outlaw a 54-member human rights coalition.

Representatives of the Coalition on Malaysian NGOs in the Universal Periodic Review Process (Comango) — which the ministry declared illegal today — said the ban smacked of government harassment on a civil society that was attempting to address discrimination issues, especially those advocating the rights of religious minorities.

“This is a crackdown to harass civil society, to stop them from speaking on issues relating to religion, to avoid people from continuing to address issues relating to human rights,” Suaram executive director Yap Swee Seng told The Malay Mail Online.

The Home Ministry today banned Comango, alleging the majority of the organisations under its umbrella were un-Islamic and unregistered.

In its statement, the Home Ministry said Comango was promoting sexual rights contrary to Islam and that only 15 out of its 54 groups were legally registered.

The ministry also noted that Comango’s main goals include pushing for the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (Sogi), a term which refers to the rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) minorities.

“What we are doing is just following our rights as enshrined in the federal constitution… We deny being anti-Muslim. We are fighting and addressing human rights issues, no one should be discriminated.

“I worry about the government’s continuing actions. In the past several months the government has been tolerating more extremist perspectives, especially with issues pertaining to religion,” Yap said.

Sisters In Islam (SIS) programme manager Suriani Kempe questioned the Home Ministry’s reasoning in banning Comango, as the coalition was never even registered in the first place.

“Comango is a coalition that does not need to be registered, just like how the High Court had ruled Bersih as being legal despite being an unregistered coalition,” she told The Malay Mail Online.

Suriani added that Comango and by extension Malaysia’s participation in the United Nations’ (UN) universal periodic review (UPR) showed that the South-East Asian country recognised the roles played by civil societies in the UPR process.

“There have been 28 other recommendations pertaining to other issues that have been sent to the UN. Why is the government only picking on Comango’s report? And as to their claims about us being anti-Islam, we support the rights of everyone- women, child, worker, adult regardless of their beliefs or sexual orientation. That is what we are advocating for.

“Are they (the government) saying that Islam is a religion that advocates violence against people because of their sexual identity?” she asked.

Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) advocacy officer Yu Ren Chung reiterated Suriani’s argument, stressing that Comango was merely abiding by the guidelines set by the UN, and that it need not be registered for it to present a report.

“If we submit a report under a coalition, the said report can be longer and more comprehensive, which is why we did so.

“I think ordinary Malaysians are not so blind, they can tell what the government is trying to do here, in trying to assert their own version of explanations, especially in light of most recent events,” Yu Ren spoke to the Malay Mail Online via a telephone interview.

Comango has previously worked closely with the government in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a United Nations human rights peer review held every four and a half years.

Co-ordinated by Empower and human rights watchdog Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram), Comango submitted its report in March 2013.

The report touched on issues such as the administration of justice; freedom of religion, expression and participation; rights to work, health and education; indigenous and migrants’ rights; and discrimination involving sexual orientation and race.

The coalition is made of 54 NGOs, which also includes women’s rights group Sisters in Islam, Amnesty International Malaysia, Centre for Independent Journalism and Tenaganita.

Putrajaya has been under pressure from Malay-Muslim NGOs ― which have banded together under the name MuslimUPRo ― which accused Comango of challenging the position of Islam in Malaysia and spreading “liberalism teachings” backed by Western powers.

Spearheading the move was Islamist group Ikatan Muslimin Malaysia, which launched a nationwide campaign against the human rights recommendations made by Comango last month.

Called ‘Sejuta Ummah Tolak Comango’ (Community of a million rejecting Comango), the campaign included a petition, nationwide rallies which kicked off last November and the distribution of leaflets at mosques after Friday prayers.

The leaflets slammed Comango for allegedly calling for the freedom to renounce Islam; the protection of LGBT rights; the removal of Malay privileges; the freedom to embrace Shiah teachings; and the right for Catholics to refer to God as “Allah”, among others.

Malaysia had gone through the UPR last October to assess its human rights conditions.

In the process, some 19 countries, including Muslim-majority ones, asked Malaysia to sign one or more of the six core international conventions on human rights which the Southeast Asian nation has yet to ratify.

Malaysia first came under the UPR on February 2009, and consequently accepted 62 of the 103 recommendations issued by the UPR working group.